In the mindless babble that passes for political debate in the United States, nothing means what it appears to mean, particularly those key words “liberal” and “conservative.” For political purposes the latter seems to have demonized the former. But has this really happened? Americans tend to be divided by race, religion, and class. The idea of a political idea is alien to our passionate folk, and that is why Karl Marx and his admirers could never get through to so thoughtless a polity while neither Tom Paine nor Tom Jefferson made much impact. So-called liberals—always for some mysterious reason called “so-called” by conservatives; does this mean that conservatives want to be thought of as true liberals?—want to extend democracy as well as see to it that the Bill of Rights applies to everyone and that the Declaration of Independence, a truly radical liberal document, be heeded so that life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness can be made available to each American, even William Safire.
I would have thought that all of this was fairly simple, but now, thanks to television and to a myriad of religious and political demagogues, our average citizen is demonstrably the most ignorant in the First World, knuckles heavily calloused from too close a contact with the greensward as he lurches from error to error, all the while hating niggers and fags and uppity women and whatever else was put in his trough that week. Currently Americans are roughly divided between reactionaries and fascists (admittedly the latter involves a degree of thought and might be too difficult for TV-calloused brains). Officially, what passes for conservatism at this time is, at best, a liking for the status quo if the citizen has money and, at worst, a hatred of minorities if he doesn’t—they are always the reason why he is income-challenged.
For years Bill Kauffman, the sage of Batavia, has been trying to make sense of our political scene. He has labored long in the Augean stable, and though he is no Hercules, he has cleaned out an interesting corner or two. By studying our history—something that is not allowed in Academe, say, while the media are past-less—he has latched on to some interesting facts (as opposed to opinions) that completely turn inside out the tedious liberal versus conservative debate, or grunting contest. He has discovered that from Jefferson to the Party of the People at the end of the last century (members known, for short, as populists) the strain of liberalism was a powerful one in our affairs. Extend the democracy, the literal meaning of liberalism, was very much a populist ideal despite the racism and sexism endemic to the Southern and Southwestern poor farmers and other mechanicals who followed the likes of William Jennings Bryan. The conservatives of the Atlantic seaboard were status quo types, quite happy to own the banks that collected the interest on farm mortgages. The rise of Bryan terrified them. Revolution was at hand. They fought back and, as one wrote to another in 1898, “A small war might take the people’s mind off our economic problems.”
Kauffman is at his best when he illuminates that most insidious word “isolationism.” The people, in those days, were very much aware of their own true interests. They wanted access to cheap money. They wanted to be allowed to live their own lives without interference from government. They wanted no part of the foreign wars that the moneyed conservative Eastern class so much enjoyed and benefited from. The people knew that they were the ones who would do the dying while the friends of Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and the last half-dozen Oval Ones (oddities to a man) made the money. The people at large took seriously George Washington’s warning against foreign entanglements. Mind our own business which is business was his advice and so remains the centerpiece of the true liberal doctrine.
With Franklin Roosevelt, the words were reversed. Because, during the short-term New Deal, he had made some liberal reforms (Social Security), he was thought to be liberal, but at heart he was a traditional Eastern conservative, with a love of foreign wars inherited from his first employer, Woodrow Wilson, and from his cousin Theodore before that. The people, instinctively liberal in these matters, and their tribunes wanted no part of either the first or the second world wars. So the conservative media, generally anglophile, painted the liberal majority of the country as racist dullards who would not take part in profitable foreign adventures for fear of being killed. The word “isolationist” became synonymous with Southern racism and rural backwardness. The conservative minority defeated the liberal majority, as we all know. Two deadly wars were fought. From the first we got, aside from the dead and wounded, 15 years of the Prohibition of alcohol which turned the whole country-lawless as well as an all-out assault on the Bill of Rights that has continued, with occasional truces (the Warren Court), until this morning.
From the second war we got a permanently militarized economy which, to date, has given us four trillion dollars worth of debt and a worn-out infrastructure which can no longer be repaired unless the economy is demilitarized, something our conservative rulers do not want to do and the liberal majority doesn’t know how to do. An essential part of the militarized economy is the enormously profitable “war” on drugs which must always be fought but never, ever won. There would be no problem, of course, if the Prohibition were repealed, a liberal notion, of course.
So we end up with all the key political words turned inside out, and once that happens, as Confucius wisely noted, no state is governable since the people cannot understand their rulers and the rulers cannot understand themselves, much less the people. Meanwhile, we must preserve the free world (actually unfree; we have elections but no politics) from—let’s see, Kim II Sung’s son and his atomic armada; and then there is Haiti, where we must restore order and justice and freedom as we did when Franklin Roosevelt invaded the island (he was in the Navy Department at the time, and one of the bizarre lies that he liked to tell ever after was how he, personally, had written the excellent constitution of Haiti). Perhaps Gulf War II might be useful, to justify the military budget and the taxes that now go almost entirely for “Defense” (Social Security income and outgo arc separate from the budget, a fact that is kept permanently secret from the taxpayers who are supposed to respond in a Pavlovian way to “wasteful people programs”).
Let us hope that Kauffman’s ideas start to penetrate and that the potential mind-our-own-business liberal majority will come to its senses and convert a military to a peacetime economy before we end up with a glamorous Brazilian economy and political system as well as, to be fair, a Brazilian-class soccer team.
This essay was written as the preface to Bill Kauffman’s book, America First!.
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